Naomi Standen - Professor of Medieval History, University of Birmingham, UK
Are any other premodernists dissatisfied with the standard units of historical analysis? Concepts such as ‘states’, ‘peoples’, ‘territory’ and ‘cultures’ derive from modern concerns and are often a poor fit to premodern circumstances of slow communications, weak centralization, fluid loyalties, shifting boundaries, remarkable mobility, tremendous diversity and continual interaction and exchange. Analyses that start from the normative ideas too often generate forced explanations of how a heterogeneous and unstable clumping of diverse interests and resources was really a ‘people’ on a teleological quest to form a ‘state’, defend a defined ‘territory’ and prosecute an identifiable ‘culture’. Can we not do better? This talk explores the idea of ‘shared practices’ as an alternative way of framing approaches to premodern historical circumstances, taking the Eurasian Northlands as the case in point. The discussion will treat socio-political relationships, Buddhism, and everyday ceramics as examples of discrete ‘layers’ of human activity and evidence that do not fit within the usual boundaries, and which may accordingly raise possibilities for fresh representations of the past.